Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Two Levels

Poul Anderson's The Long Way Home (St Albans, Herts, 1975), like most of Anderson's works, is written on two levels. It can be read straight through very quickly as an action-adventure novel. For example, several times, the hero is attacked or kidnapped by blaster-wielding spacemen.

However, between action scenes, the characters take time to discuss the most fundamental questions about life and society. These passages warrant careful rereading. For example, having returned to Earth after five thousands years, the astronaut Langley notices improvements in medical technology, reflects on earlier improvements made by agriculture and machines and wonders whether:

"'...given a few more millennia, man will do something about himself, change his own mind from animal to human.'" (p. 124)

Another spacefarer, Valti, born more than six hundred years previously, cites inherent limits on progress:

mass-energy will never be created;
heat will never be made to flow from a colder to a warmer body;
the bigger a building, the more of its volume is passages;
even if biochemistry allowed immortality, memory capacity is limited;
thus, no civilization can be either immortal or universal.

Langley asks:

"'So there'll always be rise, and decay, and fall - always war and suffering?'" (p. 124)

Rise and fall, yes, but I do not see why war and suffering should continue indefinitely. Valti replies that the only alternative is "'...death disguised by a mechanical semblance of life.'" (ibid.) I do not see that this is necessary either but it is good to have these issues discussed here. And Valti goes on to remark:

"'...if you had traveled across light-years all your days, you'd know that there is something operating which can't be reduced to physical theory.'" (p. 125)

So we read on, hoping to learn more about this.

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